Stuart Magazine’s Kayla Walsh travels to Washington, D.C., on a Southeast Florida Honor Flight with 80 WWII veterans. Here she recounts the day—from the cannon salutes to the emotional return home.
We meet at the Martin County Administration Building at 4 a.m. to board the bus. A police escort takes us from Stuart to Palm Beach International Airport. Members from the Martin County Fire Rescue, The Martin County Sheriff’s Office, the Stuart Police Department and Stuart Fire Rescue salute us at every intersection and send us off with their bright lights. Once we arrive at the airport, veterans and guardians check in. As we taxi out to the runway, two firetrucks on each side of the plane give us a water cannon salute as we go by (effectively washing the plane). This is the highest honor the fire department can bestow.
A Welcome Reception
We land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport after another water cannon salute. As we walk through the door, there is a huge welcome reception for the veterans and guardians. Politicians and travelers are lined up outside to shake hands with the veterans. The West Point Glee Club sings songs from each branch of the military. One veteran is so overcome with emotion, he starts crying and has to be helped through the line.
Many of those who step off the plane have never experienced anything like this before. Most returned home from the war and immediately had to find work in order to feed their families. But Honor Flight gives them the chance to receive a hero’s welcome home. After we leave the terminal, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts greet the veterans, giving them pictures and letters that they wrote.
First Stop: Knights of Columbus, Arlington, Virginia
The Honor Guard, made up of members from each branch of service, greets us. One man sings the national anthem. We say the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. After lunch they play taps. Master Sgt. Chad Wedekind of the U.S. Air Force, originally from Fort Pierce, presents a veteran with medals to replace the ones he lost in a house fire.
Second Stop: Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The tomb has been guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1937. We are fortunate enough to see a wreath-laying ceremony. It is a very somber and silent place. We also witness the changing of the guard. The Tomb Guard Sentinels can make no notice of the heroes watching them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know they are there. As the commander walks forward to initiate the changing ceremony, he shuffles his feet. This is not a mistake. They don’t make mistakes. This is an otherwise silent sign of respect to the heroes watching him. He does this a few more times before the ceremony is over. Honor Flight is then allowed to lay a wreath at the tomb.
Third Stop: WWII Memorial
This is where the Flags of Our Heroes presentation takes place. Former Sen. Bob Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, take turns greeting Honor Flight veterans every weekend at the WWII Memorial. They are true champions of the memorial, and raised the funds to build and maintain it. Members of the Armed Forces also greet the veterans at the memorial. They attend on their days off in full uniform with their families.
We leave the airport to another water cannon salute (the third of the day). Then it’s mail call. This is the part of the day I am most excited to see. Prior to the flight, volunteers had contacted schools, scout troops and families of the veterans requesting letters for each of them. During mail call, each veteran gets a package of letters and gifts from their family members and strangers.
The veterans are from an era before Skype, FaceTime and even long distance phone calls. During wartime, Mail Call was the soldiers’ only connections to home. You can see in their eyes how much these letters mean to them. In some cases, veterans receive pictures of new great grandchildren and others receive messages of gratitude and love from their children. It can be hard for these veterans to talk about their war experiences. But knowing that their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even strangers recognize their sacrificeis comforting.
Arriving at PBIA, we’re greeted with another water cannon salute—officially marking our plane as the cleanest in the American Airlines fleet. All of the veterans are led out of the terminal where a bag pipe band and a crowd of about 2,000 people await their return. The crowd packs the walkways, waiting to shake hands and hand out gifts and flags. U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy is among the greeters. He hands out challenge coins to each veteran. There are cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, young Marines, Girl Scouts, families, active duty military members, police officers and more. There is cheering and chanting and singing.
It is the perfect ending to a patriotic day. The staff, volunteers and guardians of Honor Flight work tirelessly to make each veteran feel special, and to give them the chance of a lifetime.